Established on March 16, 1827, by editors Samuel Cornish (1790–1859) and John Russwurm (1799–1851) in New York City, Freedom's Journal was the nation's first black-owned and -operated newspaper. The paper was a four-page, four-column standard-sized weekly that featured international and domestic news items, short stories, and editorials. Estimates suggest that the Journal had at least 800 subscribers, both whites and African Americans, a figure that rivaled the circulation of many other weekly newspapers. The actual readership was even larger, with copies being shared amongst individuals or read collectively. The paper's circulation extended to eleven U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Haiti, Europe, and Canada. The emergence of Freedom's Journal marked an important turning point in African American activism because it fostered an important public space in which African Americans could deliver critiques of slavery and colonization and champion the cause of black civil rights.
THE FOUNDERS AND THE DEBATE
Free black Americans were harshly divided in the mid-nineteenth century over whether to fight for integration in the United States or to emigrate to Liberia. The controversy would quickly divide Freedom's Journal founders and editors John Brown Russwurm and Rev. Samuel Cornish. As a result, America's first black newspaper would be short-lived. Both founders had been against colonization, but Russwurm converted from the emancipationist side to the colonizationist side within the first six months of running Freedom's Journal. As the presses rolled and the debate continued, the need for the newspaper to choose a side was increasing.
The details are murky, but Cornish left Freedom's Journal in September 1827. After his departure, in the newspaper's second year of publication, "Russwurm leaned more and more toward the colonizationists and liberally sprinkled procolonizationist sentiments throughout the newspaper," wrote Armistead Pride and Clint Wilson II (1997, p. 17). Russwurm continued to publish the paper until 1829, when he received his master's degree from Bowdoin College and joined other free blacks in Monrovia (later the republic of Liberia).
Although Freedom's Journal did not survive, the journalistic ambitions of both men continued. Russwurm, named Liberia's public schools superindendent by the American Colonization Society, became editor and publisher of the Liberia Herald. Cornish, remaining in New York, published a newspaper called The Rights of All in 1829, which only lasted six months. In 1837, Cornish was named editor of The Colored American.
SOURCE: Pride, Armistead S., and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black Press. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1997.
The publication of Freedom's Journal was intimately connected to the social and cultural changes of the 1820s. At the most fundamental level, industrialization lowered the cost of paper manufacturing, ensuring that periodicals would be less expensive to produce. As a result, the 1820s witnessed a rise in the number of newspapers that represented the interests of marginalized groups. The first labor periodical emerged in Philadelphia in 1827 and was titled the Journeyman Mechanic's Advocate. The first Native American publication, Cherokee Phoenix, emerged in 1828. With free black communities growing in strength and stature, the social infrastructure necessary to sustain a national newspaper was available for the first time. Moreover, the heavy emphasis on literacy and education within the free black community ensured that the paper would gain widespread circulation.
Cornish and Russwurm fostered an interracial readership, welcoming the support of whites whose subscriptions they insisted would only serve to "strengthen our hands." However, the Journal's editorials suggested that northern African Americans constituted the paper's primary audience and referent. In the paper's first issue, Cornish and Russwurm drew particular attention to the 500,000 persons of color residing in the North, "one half of whom might peruse, and the whole be benefitted by the publication of the Journal" (Cornish and Russwurm 1827, p. 1). This emphasis on northern African Americans was apparent in the paper's content, which demonstrated a firm commitment to developing a black public sphere independent of white control. "Too long have others spoken for us," the Journal editors lamented, "We wish to plead our own cause" (Cornish and Russwurm 1827, p. 1). In this manner, Freedom's Journal provided African Americans, who were barred from the national public sphere and largely misrepresented by it, a much-needed forum to disseminate useful information, uplift the race, and challenge systemic racism in the United States.
Samuel Cornish was born in Delaware in 1795 and trained for the ministry in Philadelphia. Upon receiving his ordination in 1822, Cornish became the pastor of New York City's first African American Presbyterian church. After resigning from Freedom's Journal, Cornish went on to join Arthur and Lewis Tappan and William Lloyd Garrison to form the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833. Cornish and the Tappans eventually split from the Anti-Slavery Society forming a rival organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Cornish died in Brooklyn in 1858.
John Brown Russwurm was born in Jamaica in 1799 to a white planter father and an enslaved African mother. As a child, Russwurm was sent to Canada by his father to be educated. In 1826, he became the first African American student to graduate from Bowdoin College in Maine. In contrast to Cornish, Russwurm broke with the abolitionist movement and became an advocate of colonization. After his brief time as editor of the Freedom's Journal, Russwurm chose to migrate to Monrovia, a colony founded by the Freedom's Journal that would later become the republic of Liberia. There he served as superintendent of schools, editor of the Liberia Herald, and colonial secretary. He was later appointed governor of Cape Palmas, an independent colony formed by the Maryland Colonization Society, where he died in 1851.
SOURCE: Dann, Martin E., ed. The Black Press, 1827–1890: The Quest for National Identity. New York: Putnam, 1971.
A large portion of the paper was devoted to practical information that aided in the development of an organized social and economic life amongst the North's 400,000 African Americans. Readers used the paper to announce family births, weddings, and funerals to the wider community. Others might search through the classifieds for listings of jobs, schools, housing, and establishments that catered specifically to black people. The activities of black fraternal and mutual societies were highlighted and readers were encouraged to participate in local branches. This type of useful knowledge served to strengthen ties between widely dispersed African Americans providing a sense of collective identity and solidarity.
In the paper's first issue the editors delineated a second key function—uplifting the race. In addition to disseminating "useful knowledge among our brethren," Freedom's Journal would aid in the "moral and religious improvement" of the African American population (Cornish and Russwurm 1827, p. 1). Part of the battle was to counter the negative portrayal of African Americans in the national public sphere. This would be achieved by allowing African Americans to speak for themselves and engage their own representation. However, the Journal's editorial board also believed firmly in using the paper to promote intellectual, physical, and moral improvement within African American communities. Articles titled "Formation of Character," "Accurate Judgment," "Duties of Wives," and "Economy" demonstrated an interest in self-improvement and the performance of appropriate moral attitudes. Education was singled out as "an object of the highest importance" and parents were encouraged to make "a concerted effort for the education" of their children (Cornish and Russwurm 1827, p. 1).
Freedom's Journal was implicated in this broader emphasis on African American education. The editors emphasized the paper's central role in educating the African American public, not only in terms of morality, but also about current affairs, science and technology, culture, and important political issues. The paper devoted considerable space to important rhetorical and literary works produced by African Americans that would have otherwise remained inaccessible to the broader black public. Poetry by African American writers such as Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), sermons by celebrated black ministers, biographies of important historical figures, and speeches from contemporary African American leaders helped unify disparate African American populations around a sense of collective cultural identity and pride.
Throughout its two-year existence, Freedom's Journal provided an important space for African Americans to challenge U.S. racial oppression. Believing in their "duty to vindicate our brethren, when oppressed; and to lay the case before the publick," the Journal editors took a strong stance in opposition to slavery and pushed for integration and black political rights in the North (Cornish and Russwurm 1827, p. 1). The editorial staff insisted that the paper remain solely committed to the interests of African Americans and resist the temptation to "become the tools" of any political party (Cornish and Russwurm 1827, p. 1). This unique willingness to engage multiple political positions ensured that African Americans had a safe space in which to openly debate a wide range of strategies and solutions to their contemporary social and political condition.
Initially, the editors of Freedom's Journal vigorously opposed the efforts of the American Colonization Society (ACS) that sought to transport free blacks to its colony in Liberia. The vast majority of African Americans mirrored the paper's opposition to colonization supporting efforts to promote racial equality within the domestic United States. However, after Cornish resigned in September 1827, Russwurm became the sole editor and shifted the Journal toward a pro-colonization position. Russwurm's unpopular stance on colonization, in combination with the paper's financial problems, resulted in its demise in March 1829. Despite its short lifespan, Freedom's Journal had a tremendous impact on the African American press. By the time of the Civil War (1861–1865), more than forty black-owned and -operated newspapers had been established across the United States. Moreover, although many historians locate the beginning of radical abolitionism in the 1830s with the rise of white activists such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), this history of Freedom's Journal demonstrates that African American activists were already engaged in important protests against slavery and around African American civil rights during the 1820s. In many ways, Freedom's Journal laid the groundwork for future struggles for African American liberation within the United States.
Bacon, Jacqueline. "The History of Freedom's Journal: A Study in Empowerment and Community." The Journal of African American History 88, no.1. (Winter 2003): 1-20.
Cooper, Frederick. "Elevating the Race: The Social Thought of Black Leaders, 1827–1850." American Quarterly 24, no. 5 (December 1972): 604-624.
Cornish, Samuel, and John Russwurm. "To Our Patrons." Freedom's Journal 1, no. 1 (March 16, 1827): 1.
Dann, Martin E., ed. The Black Press 1827–1890: The Quest for National Identity. New York: Putnam, 1971.
Kerry L. Pimblott